Obama Drug Czar Says Drug Addiction is a Health Problem

James Wright | 7/14/2010, 9:19 p.m.
Black Medical Schools at Forefront in Terms of Treatment...
Richard Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy said that the Obama administration is using various tools to combat the problems of drug addicts.Courtesy Photo

Black Medical Schools at Forefront in Terms of Treatment

President Obama 's chief adviser on national drug policy said that the administration has made a shift change on dealing with the problem of drug addiction, arguing that it is a health issue not one for the criminal justice system.

"Drugs are a public health problem as much as a public safety issue," said Richard Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as the drug czar. "Addiction is a disease and this disease can be treated."

Kerlikowske discussed the Obama administration's new approach to fighting drug addiction along with other issues during a conference call with reporters, Thu., July 1.

Kerlikowske, 60, said that the president wants to take a different approach than his predecessors because what has been done in the past is not working.

"The president wants a comprehensive drug control strategy," he said. "He also wants me to focus on ideas developed from outside of Washington. As a result, I have traveled the country and met with groups that deal with people who are struggling with drugs."

Statistics compiled by the Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minn., show that 19.5 million people over the age of 12 use illegal drugs that include marijuana, cocaine, heroin and others, in the United States. Mayo statistics estimate that 19,000 deaths occur from people who are addicted to illegal drugs.

It has been widely reported by various medical and social service organizations that employed drug abusers cost their employers about twice as much in medical and worker compensation claims as their drug-free co-workers. Surveys on people who use drugs, either recreationally or as dependents, said that marijuana is the most popular illegal drug, with 76 percent of the general population admitting to trying it once.

Kerlikowske served as the police chief of Seattle prior to his appointment by Obama in May 2009. He has headed police departments in Fort Pierce and Port Saint Lucie, both cities in Florida. He also served as police commissioner of Buffalo, N.Y. for almost two years and in the Clinton administration Justice Department heading the office of community policing grants.

The U.S. thrust against illegal drugs started in 1971 with President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs." The effort has taken on various forms throughout the years, depending on the administration in power.

Republican presidents who included Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush focused on locking up drug offenders while Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton promoted approaches that utilized the criminal justice and social services systems to deal with drug offenders and addicts.

Obama has admitted candidly in his book-- "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance", published by Times Books on July 18, 1995 -- about his drug use in high school.

One key break from other administration's is to de-emphasize the term "War on Drugs", Kerlikowske said.

"The term 'War on Drugs' is outdated and drug addiction is a complex problem," he said. "We do not like to use the term 'war' because it gives you limited tools. Again, we see drug addiction not so much as a public safety problem but a public health problem."

Kerlikowkse said that the Obama administration is using various tools to combat the problems of drug addicts. He said that the president's 2011 budget calls for a 13 percent increase for funding programs for prevention.

Drugs courts can be used more widely to help assess the needs of drug addicts who commit criminal offenses and can be treated appropriately, Kerlikowske said.

During his travels, Kerlikowkse said that he has observed that predominantly Black medical schools have a better handle on the problem of treating drug addicts than their counterparts.

"Howard University and Morehouse medical schools understand the problem of addiction and its impact," he said. "Those schools train their students on how to treat addiction more than others. The HBCUs got it and they are farther ahead on this than other medical schools."

The Black medical schools tend to teach their students to treat drug addicts from a holistic standpoint whereas others teach their charges conventional methods that include therapy and medication, he said.

Since 1960, the American Medical Association has taken the position that drug addiction should be considered a matter of public health. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, stated publicly that he, as a physician, saw drug addiction "really as a matter of health instead of law enforcement."

Vince Robertson, a resident of Takoma Park, Md., said that the Obama administration is correct regarding its stance on drug addiction.

"It seems to me that a growing number of health professionals are coming to that opinion," Robertson, 55, said. "I personally think that drug addiction is a disease because having that drug becomes a driving force that is uncontrollable."

Robertson said that "it is obvious that putting people in jail is not working."

"I think the best way to solve this problem is just what Obama wants to do, re-define the problem," he said.

Kerlikowske said, on another issue, that the Obama administration's position on medical marijuana is to stick with the law, which on the federal level states that it is an illegal drug with criminal penalties for its use and possession. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for treatment of medical ailments, though each jurisdictions has its own laws and ordinances governing who has access to it and how much.

"Marijuana is a controlled substance that is illegal and based on Food and Drug Administration guidelines it is dangerous," he said. "We do not like medicine through popular support."

Nevertheless, Kerlikowske said that the administration has advised its U.S. Attorneys to use resources selectively in determining whether to prosecute cases regarding medical marijuana, particularly in the jurisdictions that authorize its use.

"We feel our resources can be used for other more pressing purposes," he said.